by Deren Hansen
I may be guilty of the
same thing, but I found myself unsatisfied when I heard someone assert
that viewpoint, point of view, and perspective were synonymous. Of
course the statement is true in a general sense. Outside of writing
about writing, I would never want to be constrained to use a particular
term only in a particular context. But the advantage of having a writer
as reader is that the writer has terms and concepts with which to more
specifically identify issues with the narrative. Instead of guessing why
a reader may have lost interest in a section it is much more helpful to
hear that the pacing suffered because of the long descriptive
paragraphs devoted to back story.
When someone says your story
has a problem with point of view they could be referring to one or more
of three related but distinct storytelling dimensions: the grammatical
person, the viewpoint character, or issues of characterization.
Point of View
we discuss point of view, we usually focus on the grammatical person
and the associated narrative conventions. If a story is told in
first-person then logically only events in which that person
participated can be related directly. A story told in third-person can
stay close to one character or follow many characters without defying
logic. There are subtle and not-so-subtle challenges with each point of
view over which beginning writers often stumble, so it’s almost always a
good place to go when troubleshooting a story.
are always told from the viewpoint of one or several characters. Even
in omniscient mode you still have the viewpoint of the narrator. The
storyteller selects what to include and omit from the narrative.
Generally, someone close to the action will include more detail than
someone farther away. Because story is fundamentally about understanding
the why behind the external events, we usually want to hear the story
from the perspective of the person closest to the action—and while
physical proximity is important, emotional proximity is even more so.
Sometimes, however, the story is better served by someone removed from
the action: Holmes is more brilliant in Watson’s telling because we
never see the internal debate in the great detective’s head before he
announces his deduction. Getting the viewpoint right is much trickier
than fixing the grammar and logic of point of view. Reading widely helps
develop your instinct for storytelling, but when it comes to your own
story you may be best served by writing several scenes from different
viewpoints to see which resonates most strongly.
the mechanics and logic of constructing a consistent point of view and
the choices of what belongs in the story we reach the rarefied air of
the perspective the viewpoint character brings to the narrative. We
would expect, for example, a monk who had taken a vow of pacifism to
describe a fistfight differently than a Mongol warrior. (And how would
that description differ if the monk were a former Mongol warrior?) A
perpetual challenge when writing for children and young adults is to
create characters whose perspective isn’t contaminated by the mature
perspective of the author.
How, What, and Why
a simpler way to understand the distinction between viewpoint, point of
view, and perspective is that they address, respectively, how the story
is told, what comprises the story, and why the character or characters
telling the story believe it is significant. The distinctions are
important because the way you fix a mechanical point of view problem,
like a character in a first-person narrative knowing something they
didn’t experience, is very different from the way you fix a problem in
perspective, like a child having adult sensibilities.
Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.